2011 was a tragic year for the Canterbury region of New Zealand. It was hit by an earthquake in February as well as a number of aftershocks. These hardships made the Crusaders' trip to the Super Rugby final last year all the more amazing.
AMI Stadium still hasn't been repaired so the Crusaders will be playing their home games at the much smaller Rugby League Park. But that shouldn't be a problem.
The Crusaders boast a team with so much talent that they were only allowed to select 30 players due to the salary cap. That 30 includes 13 players who have donned the black jersey. Only the Blues have more, with 14.
But two of those 13 are Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Todd Blackadder is privileged to have arguably two of the greatest All Blacks of all time leading his team. Not only that but they were good enough to win a number of games without them and away from their home stadium, which speaks volumes about the character of this team.
The front row features three All Blacks props, including the World Cup-winning Franks brothers and last year's Steinlager Super Rugby player of the year, Wyatt Crockett. Crockett was unlucky to miss out on the World Cup squad because of Graham Henry's gamble with Tony Woodcock. But with Woodcock becoming injury prone, Crockett could become the next great All Black loosehead.
Owen Franks has been improving every year and was not only a great scrummager but was one of the best defensive players for the All Blacks during the World Cup. Ben Franks is valuable due to his versatility, as he is able to line up at both sides of the scrum.
Rounding out the front row is All Black Corey Flynn. Due to his penchant for getting injured, Tasman hooker Quentin McDonald or rookie Ben Funnell are likely to get some game time this season.
Replacing the legendary Brad Thorn is Otago import and former All Black Tom Donnelly. He will be joining Sam Whitelock to form one of the top second rows in the competition.
Donnelly will be looking to regain the form that made him an All Black starter in 2010. He is a great scrummaging lock who wins lineouts and is good on the pick-and-go. Whitelock is better known for his high work rate, great ball running and getting turnovers at the breakdown. Backing them up are former Hurricane and Highlander Ross Kennedy and Canterbury player Luke Romano.
McCaw will be missing the start of the Super Rugby season as he recovers from his ankle injury, but that shouldn't be a problem.
The loose forwards still feature former Steinlager Player of the Year Kieran Read, who has been called a future All Black captain due to his leadership and outstanding consistency. He will be joined by one-test All Black George Whitelock, his younger brother and Baby Blacks captain Luke Whitelock, and Tasman's Joe Wheeler.
But perhaps the most intriguing prospect is openside Matt Todd.
Todd impressed when he played in McCaw's place last year and was even used to mimic David Pocock before the All Blacks semifinal game. I mentioned in another article that I think he will be probably be competing with Luke Braid as McCaw's successor, though Sam Cane could also be in the mix if he plays well for Waikato. His cameo at All Blacks training could be a sign of things to come.
At halfback is All Black Andy Ellis. Of the three halfbacks in the World Cup last year, Ellis was known for getting the ball out of the ruck the quickest. However he does have a tendency of trying to run the ball like a first-five. Canterbury man Willie Heinz is his backup.
Carter will be looking to get back to his winning ways after missing the World Cup playoffs last year. He is as good as it gets at the pivot position and his impact is seen in his teams' performances without him. His backup is Tyler Bleyendaal, who was nominated for the IRB Junior Player of the Year in 2010 in his second year of Super Rugby.
The centres do not include Sonny Bill Williams, who went to the Chiefs, but they still have a wealth of talent.
The bulldozer Robbie Fruean will be joined by a consistent performer in Ryan Crotty, who has quietly impressed for both the Crusaders and Canterbury over the past few years. Backup Adam Whitelock also had a great season for Canterbury last year.
The wings will feature All Black Zac Guildford and last year's leading try scorer, Sean Maitland. Guildford however will be missing the first month of the season due to his alcoholism issues, so 105 kg Fijian winger Patrick Osborne will have a chance to start. He combines pace with size and has played for the Fijian Sevens team.
At the back is the most electrifying player in New Zealand rugby, Israel Dagg.
Last year was his coming out party, cementing his position as the new All Black fullback. Whenever he touched the ball he created magic, either with a great touch-finding kick or with his amazing speed and agility. He is also a good goalkicker as he showed with the Highlanders. Tom Marshall is also a solid option, having played for the Crusaders last year and serving as a goal-kicker.
The Crusaders have a chance to win another title and re-establish themselves as the most dominant team in Super Rugby. But the wealth of talent in the other teams in their conference will make that a challenging job. Either way, if the Crusaders can win their eighth trophy, it will be a great distraction for the people of Canterbury, who really need something to smile about these days.
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